Live Off the Land

Staff PicksTenley-Friendship Library

Live Off the Land

(As Much as You Can)

It's been a cold, cold winter and I've been flagging catalogs and making sketches, impatient to get a start on the spring and summer garden. I like to think that growing vegetables and cut flowers is an environmentally friendly activity, but there's always that day I go to the garden center and purchase plastic flats of seedlings, plastic bags of potting soil and possibly a plastic pot or two, conveniently forgetting my contribution to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is now three times the size of France

The gardener Monty Don vowed to reduce the use of plastic in his life and on his show because "every time we use and discard any item of plastic we are adding to the mountain." He also asked gardeners around the world to reduce and try to eliminate the purchase and use of plastic because "no one can change everythingbut everyone can change something."

With Monty's mantra in mind, I've compiled some books about the home and garden with a focus on reducing impact on the environment and increasing self-sufficiency.  

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
Published just over a decade ago, these modern classics were highly influential in getting Americans to consider conscious consumption as a way of life. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a memoir of a year in the life of a small farma neighborly, homespun account of where one family's food comes from. While the scale of the book is small, there are sidebars that have useful macro-level information, like the revelation that 17 percent of American oil usage is from agriculture. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan traces the origins and chains of distribution and consumption of four different meals. Like Kingsolver, Pollan points out that the oil and corn industries have an outsize influence on what's available in a conventional supermarket. 

The Weekend Homesteader: a Twelve-Month Guide to Self-Sufficiency by Anna Hess
Although it is very difficult to make a lifestyle change that completely removes the modern dependence on fossil fuels, there are some books that encourage readers to take steps in that direction. In The Weekend Homesteader, Hess promises readers that a level of independence from conventional consumption is possible even if someone only has limited time in a week to devote to homesteading. Hess modernizes the concept of homesteading, taking it from the 19th-century notion of "hacking a livelihood out of the wilderness" to the present meaning, which utilizes "sweat equity" to grow nutritious food. 

Little House Living: the Make-Your-Own Guide to a Frugal, Simple, and Self-Sufficient Life by 
Merissa A. Alink
Alink leaves the garden outdoors and has written an interior book about caring for the self and the home. Little House Living includes many techniques and recipes for items like bath salts, lip balm and homemade cleaning products. Although it doesn't reference the Danish concept of coziness, this is definitely a book that evokes hygge.

Modern Pioneering: More than 150 Recipes, Projects, and Skills for a Self-Sufficient Life  by Georgia Pellegrini 
Modern Pioneering
is a tribute to the current "period of rediscovery," when modern Americans are finding empowerment by learning how to get things for themselves by growing or making them. Pellegrini's writing style is inviting and friendly, which makes readers feel that they can build planters or make their own chalk paint. The book has nice, bite-sized lists of problems and solutions for beginning pioneers.

The Suburban Chicken: The Guide to Keeping Healthy, Thriving Chickens in Your Backyard by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
The Rooftop Beekeeper: a Scrappy Guide to Keeping Urban Honeybees by Megan Paska with Rachel Wharton

For ambitious homesteaders ready to take the step from vegetable to animal, there are how-to-guides such as The Suburban Chicken and The Rooftop Beekeeper. Both books are well-designed, bright and encouraging, a welcome step away from old-fashioned, tedious instruction manuals. They both include clear sets of techniques without dipping into overly technical writing. The books contain sections on preparation, setup, process and what to do with the honey, wax, eggs and meat that result from investment, work and some luck.

The Urban Homesteading Cookbook: Forage, Farm, Ferment and Feast for a Better World by Michelle Catherine Nelson
Once the food is on the table, the responsible thing to do is to eat it or preserve it. Michelle Catherine Nelson's fascinating cookbook The Urban Homesteading Cookbook, is not for amateurs, but it is aspirational cooking at its best. Nelson blended a PhD in conservation biology and sustainable agriculture with an adventurous palate and created recipes for foraged mushrooms, tree tip tea (from pines and evergreens) and for game, both hunted and gathered, particularly made from invasive species.

Canning for a New Generation: Bold, Fresh Flavors for the Modern Pantry by Liana Krissoff is an updated classic, arranged by season so that the harvest of the whole year is represented. Krissoff's recipes for infused oils, cordials, jams and pickles are innovative and contain flavor combinations that are completely unavailable to purchase at any supermarket.  

Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Living Well and Saving Money by Wasting Less Food by Dana Gunders
Gunders is a scientist who shocks people when she tells them that the average American household "spends $120 per month on food that's never eaten." Throwing away food is a waste of resources as well as money, so in Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, Gunders gives practical advice about how to identify if a food is actually dangerous to eat, what to do to salvage or repurpose old produce and how to store food so it can be used at a future time. A highly recommended guide for readers looking to reduce the amount of food that goes in the trash each week.

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver says "a lot of us are wishing for a way back home, to the place where care-and-feeding isn’t zookeeper’s duty but something happier and more creative." Nostalgia is certainly a component in the current turn toward homesteading, but there's also the desire to place building blocks for a better future.